Fringe: Wild Nation Style

Camp is winding down and, as such, the roster is starting to take shape. 

The team has just made seven cuts today, sending 2008 first round pick Tyler Cuma back to his junior team, the Ottawa 67s, and reassigning Anton Khudobin, Wade Dubielewicz, Justin Falk, Petr Kalus, Jon Disalvatore and Duncan Milroy to Houston. 

With that announcement, we’re closer to having our opening day roster.  So we’re going to take a look at the roster as it stands now. 

First, the locks: 

Center
Mikko Koivu
James Sheppard
Eric Belanger
Kyle Brodziak 

Wing
Martin Havlat
Petr Sykora
Owen Nolan
Antti Miettinen
Andrew Brunette
Cal Clutterbuck
Pierre-Marc Bouchard
Derek Boogaard 

Defense
Brent Burns
Nick Schultz
Marek Zidlicky
Kim Johnsson
Greg Zanon
Shane Hnidy 

Goalie
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding 

No big surprises there, right?  We pretty much knew, as of the Sykora signing, that the 20 regulars were set.  The big question, though, is going to be who the three players sitting in the press box will be.

This is…The Fringe Division. 

Colton Gillies - Gillies has impressed in spurts this pre-season, but it is clear that he is still a very raw talent.  He’s going to be one hell of a player for the Wild, but the team has quite the conundrum with young Colton.  Do they let him develop at the NHL level, where he’ll get third line minutes at best, or do they send him to Houston, where he’ll immediately be the leader of the Houston Aeros on and off the ice. 

Danny Irmen - Irmen is one of the fringe player that I think makes the squad.  First, his contract isn’t hefty so it allows the team some wiggle room.  Second, he has done absolutely everything the team has asked of him, to the T, this pre-season.  He is 100% pure energy and has spent the last few years developing in Houston.  It’s make or break time for the young buck and I think it’s time he makes it. 

Benoit Pouliot – I think you’ll see Benny Poo rounding out the Wild line up.  While he still has areas to improve in, it appears as if he was a bit mismanaged by the Wild last season, as he has shown some pretty good flashes getting first and second line minutes.  He’s a work in progress, but this season is a work in progress.  In the right situation, I think that he is capable of elevating his game and will get a chance to do so. 

John Scott - Yesterday, I wrote a little blurb about how Scott hasn’t really done himself any favors in making the squad this pre-season.  After I spoke to a friend about the way he played against Chicago, I am going to have to respectfully withdraw my previous comments.  He said Scott’s skating was much improved over last season and went even further to say that he looked pretty quick to the puck as well.  He also said that his shot looked much better and that, of the six shots he took from the point, all were through screens and five found the net before anything else. 

Jaime Sifers – Sifers could be the wild card for Minnesota.  He’s impressed this pre-season and was impressive in his limited call up with Toronto last season.  Sifers is a solid player and could be beneficial to the Wild in a seventh or eighth defenseman role.  The biggest thing that Sifers can bring to the table is his grit, but his lack of size may keep him off the roster for the time being. 

Marco Scandella - A long shot, at best, Scandella has been turning heads at camp this season.  He’s got a great first pass out of the zone and is slowly but surely getting better at making decisions on the fly and at his defensive zone play.  Scandella is a few years off still, but he’s steadily getting better.

Game Recap: Wild Blank Jackets 2-0

The reigning NHL hits king, Cal Clutterbuck, sent a message Friday night — that he isn’t going to be content just being a checker.

Cal Clutterbuck celebrates one of two goals Friday night against Columbus.

Cal Clutterbuck celebrates one of two goals Friday night against Columbus.

Unfortunately, the storyline of the night wasn’t Clutterbuck’s offensive performance.  Instead, it was another ill advised hit — this time, Wild center Eric Belanger on Jackets forward Jason Chimera.

One night after Islanders forward Kyle Okposo was taken off on a stretcher following a Dion Phaneuf hit, Chimera had to be removed from the ice on a stretcher following a check from behind by Belanger late in the second period.  Chimera, in his first shift back after being struck in the face by a puck, was driven face first into the glass by Belanger.  A Blue Jackets spokesman said that Chimera was coherent as he left the ice and gave the sellout crowd a thumbs up.

The hit was atypical for Belanger, who has accrued just 251 penalty minutes in his eight season career.  Belanger was assessed a 5-minute boarding penalty and a 10-minute game misconduct.

The hit put a damper on an otherwise impressive performance by the Wild.  The team made the most of their opportunities and the players that were trying to impress coach Todd Richards did just that.

Colton Gillies finished the game with zero points, but put forth a strong effort that saw him tally three shots on goal in just under fifteen minutes of ice time.  Danny Irmen also captured Richards’ attention with yet another hard working, solid performance.  While it’s extremely unlikely that he’ll make the team, he’s definitely gotten noticed.

“Coming in, I didn’t know anything about Danny Irmen when I got here,” Richards told reporters.  ”Watching him skate, he has some skill, he handles the puck well, he moves well enough out on the ice.  Now it’s just getting him in game situations.”

As I’ve mentioned before, I think Irmen might actually have the inside track to landing a job on the big squad this season due to the size of his salary.  Should Gillies make the squad, he would be due over $1M on a team that is pressed right up against the cap.  Irmen, on the other hand, is set to make just a fraction of Gillies — something that will certainly rest on the minds of Richards and Fletcher when making the final roster decisions.

In nets, Backstrom and Harding combined for the shutout with 27 saves between them.

Wild Sign Sykora

So the worst kept secret in the NHL (or at least one of them this pre-season) has come to pass.

The Wild signed right wing Petr Sykora to a one-year, $1.6M contract today effectively ending his tryout the day after it began.

Sykora takes the ice for the first time for the Wild in practice.

Sykora takes the ice for the first time for the Wild in practice.

“I’m shocked,” Sykora sarcastically told reporters.  “I guess my practice yesterday made them sign me.”

All joking aside, this is a fantastic move for the Wild and one that gives them a legitimate second-line scoring threat.  No offense to Cal Clutterbuck or Antti Miettinen, but Sykora has proven season after season (10-straight, in fact) that he is a capable 20 goal scorer.  You’ve got to expect that Sykora will play on the second line centered by playmaker extraordinaire, Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

Sykora’s signing brings up a couple questions now, though.

First, where do the fringe players fit in?

The Wild had a few players that they were giving nice, long looks to in camp to try to win their way on the squad and Sykora has now effectively taken one of the few spots available.  This means that the jobs of Andy Hilbert (who was at camp on a tryout), Colton Gillies, Danny Irmen and Petr Kalus just got a lot more difficult.

Essentially, the signing leaves the team with approximately $800k remaining in cap room and GM Cliff Fletcher wanting to leave more room than that for call ups due to injuries.  What this adds up to is either a) players who otherwise might have made the squad now won’t or b) there’s going to be some trading going on in the weeks leading up to the season.

If the case is option B, who are the most likely casualties?

Immediately, you’d have to look to Eric Belanger.  The Wild now have the luxury of having too many centers (what a difference a year makes) and, ultimately, Belanger doesn’t really seem like he fits into the current team’s plans.  While Belanger is no stranger to these rumors, he has fit in quite well on the Wild and I, for one, would be sad to see him go.  He’s a solid checking line center that works hard each and every night and takes extreme pride in what he does.

Finally, who moves off the second line?

Initially, in practice this season, the team’s second line has been Miettinen, Clutterbuck and Bouchard.  Bouchard is set at center from the looks of things, so that leaves it between the two wings — Miettinen and Clutterbuck. 

Personally, I think that Miettinen makes more sense to have on the second line.  I think that Clutterbuck could benefit greatly from being Owen Nolan’s linemate for a season and Miettinen has a little bit more refined of an offensive game than Clutterbuck does at this point in his career.

It’s obviously a conundrum for coach Todd Richards to sort out but, quite honestly, it’s one that the Wild should be happy to have.

That’s it for today, but tomorrow is game two of the pre-season, so keep your eyes peeled for another gameday thread!

The Depth Chart and Other Randomness

Depth Chart
Earlier today, Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune posted what will be the Wild’s depth chart if it starts the season with the way the roster is now:

Goalie
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding
Barry Brust
Anton Khudobin

LD-RD
Kim Johnsson-Brent Burns
Nick Schultz-Marek Zidlicky
Greg Zanon-Shane Hnidy
John Scott-Jaime Sifers
Tyler Cuma-Justin Falk
Clayton Stoner-Jamie Fraser
Marco Scandella-Maxim Noreau

LW-C-RW
Andrew Brunette-Mikko Koivu-Martin Havlat
Owen Nolan-James Sheppard-Pierre-Marc Bouchard (RW until training camp)
Antti Miettinen-Eric Belanger-Cal Clutterbuck
Colton Gillies-Kyle Brodziak-Derek Boogaard
Petr Kalus-Benoit Pouliot-Craig Weller
Robbie Earl-Morten Madsen-Danny Irmen
Matt Kassian-Cody Almond-Carson McMillan

First of all, if you haven’t checked out Mike Russo’s blog and you’re a Wild fan, shame on you.  It’s one of the best resources for all things Wild out there.  Click here to go there.  Bookmark it, scour it daily and above all thank him for his amazing coverage of the Wild!

Anyway, off my soapbox for the moment.

Looking at this depth chart, the thing that immediately jumps out at me is not the center position.  A lot has been made of our depth (or lack thereof) down the middle.  In looking at the team, however, we’ve got five potential pivots on our roster, and that’s not including Colton Gillies, Owen Nolan or Benoit Pouliot.  Throw those two into the mix and we could have as many as eight players on the opening day that could be capable of anchoring a line in the middle.

The thing that really jumps out at me is our lack of depth at left wing.  After Nolan, Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen, the talent level really drops off.  This isn’t a knock on Gillies; however, we have a serious lack of skill and depth on the left side and, honestly, on the wing in general.

To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, is our talent on defense and in nets.  Our top-six defensemen could be the best top-six that the team has had.  The additions of Zanon and Hnidy give the team two reliable, physical anchors on the blueline and will force opposing teams to keep their heads up.  Meanwhile, expect Scott and Sifers to compete for the seventh spot in camp, most likely with Scott winning the battle.  That’s not to say, however, that our youth could not come in and surprise.  With Cuma, Falk, Stoner and Scandella in the wings, there is a good chance that Scott and Sifers may not be foregone conclusions at the 7 and 8 slot.  It will take a lot for any of these four to make the squad, however.  Of the four, Stoner probably has the best shot as this could be his make it or break it year, but make no mistake — the Wild’s top 7 are pretty much set.

Olvecky Signs in Nashville
Joel Ward, Ryan Jones and now Olvecky?  Those Tennessee boys sure do like Wild prospects.

In all honesty, I think that Olvecky has a fantastic chance to make the Nashville squad next season right out of camp.  Olvecky is a big body with a lot of untapped talent to boot, and he performed admirably for the Wild in a limited role with the team in the handful of games he played for us last season.

He really started to come into his own last season and seems like he could be the type of player that Barry Trotz will really love.  For $600K and a two-way contract, I’d take Olvecky any day of the week.  A good depth pick up by the Preds.

Qualifying Offers Signed
The Wild had a few players of their own signed as well.

Restricted free agents Benoit Pouliot, Clayton Stoner, Danny Irmen and Robbie Earl all signed their qualifying offers and it seems as if the lot of them (with the exception of Pouliot) could see another year playing in the minors.  Earl and Irmen both have too many players in front of them to have a shot at making the squad (that is, barring a spectacular camp from either) and Stoner will have to do some serious damage in camp to work his way up the depth chart.

Injuries do happen, though, and we could very easily see one of them get a cup of coffee in the NHL and do what Cal Clutterbuck did last season and not let go.

In addition, Russo reports that the Wild could be close to signing Duncan Milroy and Joe DiSalvatore to plug some holes in their minor league system.

Fletcher Working Trade Market
There are a lot of people who are getting scared by the Wild’s seeming lack of movement this off season.

Those fans are the Chicken Littles of the fanbase.

While there are some quality players out there, there really aren’t any players that would meet any immediate needs for us.  I mentioned Mats Sundin, Robert Lang and Mike Comrie previously, but Sundin likely doesn’t have much more tread on his tires, Lang is rumored (or already has) to jump ship to the KHL and Comrie, well, let’s just say I don’t want to sign a player for his girlfriend.  In addition to those players, there are players such as Alex Tanguay and Petr Sykora left over.  Undoubtedly, these players could make an impact on the Wild roster, but would they really fit?

In the case of Tanguay, he’s a tremendous talent, but he’s also been pigeonholed as a playmaker — of which, the Wild have many.  Sykora would be a cheap, effective sniper, but do the Wild want to sink the money it would take to get him on an aging player?

Bottom line is that the best route for the team to improve, at this point, is the route that Fletcher is taking — trades.

There are many top flight forwards that have been presumed available via trade.  Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins, Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators, Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks, even Chicago’s Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane have always been rumored to be available.

To be honest, the names remaining in free agency don’t even hold a candle to a lot of these names.  I’d much rather have a Kessel, Heatley, Sharp or Kane over any of those available — regardless of the assets we have to give up for them.

The bottom line is that the Wild are far from done, in my opinion.  But Fletcher has said all along that he’s not afraid to go late into the summer with a less than full roster to give himself the flexibility that he needs to get the players it takes to make this a winning team.

So…

Fear not Chicken Little.  The sky is not falling.  With a little patience, we could have a playoff team yet.